Never bought or sold, the fabled diamond changed many hands as it traveled through several dynasties before ending up at the Tower of London. This is the story of Kohinoor's intriguing journey.
Described by the Mughal Emperor Babur as ‘Worth the value of one day’s food for all the people in the world‘, Kohinoor is one of the most coveted and valuable diamonds of all times. This dazzlingly beautiful rare jewel has been in the eye of the storm ever since it left the hands of its original owners, the Kakatiyas of Warangal. Never bought or sold, the fabled diamond changed many hands as it traveled through several dynasties that included the Khiljis, the Mughals, the Persians, the Afghans and the British before ending up at the Tower of London.
This is the intriguing story of its eventful journey.
The Kohinoor has a complex history that goes back to the 13th century. A large colourless diamond that weighed around 793 carats, Kohinoor originated in India’s Golconda mines when they were under the rule of the Kakatiya dynasty.
Legend has it that it was used as an eye of the deity in a Kakatiya temple in Warangal in 1310.
In the early 14th century, Alauddin Khilji, second ruler of the Khilji dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate, and his army began looting the kingdoms of southern India. During a raid on Warangal, Malik Kafur (Khilji’s general) acquired the priceless diamond for the Khilji dynasty. It was then passed on to the succeeding dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate.
In 1526, Babur handed a resounding defeat to Ibrahim Lodi at the Battle of Panipat. The victorious Babur received reports that the Fort of Agra housed an immense treasure, which included a diamond that defied all description. Enraptured by the jewel on its acquisition, Babur called it the ‘Diamond of Babur’ and even mentioned it in his memoir, the Baburnama.
After Babur’s death, the precious stone was inherited by his son Humayun from whom it passed on to successive generations of Mughal rulers, including Shah Jahan, who set the priceless gem in his legendary Peacock throne.
Later, when he was imprisoned in the Agra Fort by his son Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan used to see the reflection of the Taj Mahal in the glittering jewel, placed near a window.
It was in Aurangzeb’s reign that Tavernier, an enterprising French traveller and gem connoisseur, visited India in the search of rare and wonderful gems. Having been shown the diamond by Aurangzeb, Tavernier made the first sketch of Kohinoor in history.
Aurangzeb also entrusted the work of cutting and enhancing the diamond to Hortenso Borgia, a Venetian lapidary (gem artist) so clumsy that he reduced the weight of the stone from 793 carats to 186 carats. So enraged was Aurangzeb at the carelessness and stupidity of the lapidary, that not only did he refuse to compensate him for his labour, but he also confiscated all of Borgia’s worldly possessions.
During the rule of Aurangzeb’s grand son Muhammad Shah in 1739, Delhi was invaded by Nadir Shah, the Shah of Persia. His army looted all the jewels in the royal Mughal treasury, which also included the famous Peacock Throne, and Daria-i-noor, the sister diamond of the Kohinoor. However, the Kohinoor was nowhere to be seen. How Nadir Shah acquired the Kohinoor is a very interesting story.
Muhammad Shah used to carry the prized diamond with him hidden in the folds of his turban, a secret known only to a selected few, including a eunuch in the harem of the Emperor. Hoping to win the favor of the victorious Nadir Shah, the disloyal eunuch whispered the emperor’s secret into his ears. Devising a plan to deprive Muhammad Shah of his prized possession., Nadir Shah ordered a grand feast to coincide with the restoration of Muhammad Shah to his throne.
During the feast, Nadir Shah proposed an exchange of turbans as a gesture of eternal friendship and Muhammad Shah, unable to refuse the gesture, had to hand over his turban. After the ceremony, Nadir Shah returned to his private chambers where he eagerly unfolded the turban to find the diamond concealed within. Dazzled by its beauty, he exclaimed ‘Koh-i-noor‘, which in Persian means mountain of light. One of Nadir Shah’s consort, wonder struck by the Kohinoor, had said,
“If a strong man were to throw four stones, one north, one south, one east, one west, and a fifth stone up into the air, and if the space between them were to be filled with gold, all would not equal the value of the Kohinoor.”
Nadir Shah was assassinated soon after he returned to Persia and the diamond fell into the hands of Ahmad Shah Abdali, one of his ablest generals, who later became the Emir of Afghanistan.
A descendant of Abdali, Shah Shuja Durrani brought the Kohinoor back to India in 1813 and gave it to Ranjit Singh,the ruler of Lahore, in exchange for his help in winning back the throne of Afghanistan.
Ranjit Singh , the founder of the Sikh empire, had the prized jewel sewn into an armlet, which he wore on all the important state occasions. It remained with him for the next twenty years. Ranjit Singh had willed the diamond to the temple of Jagannath in Puri, in modern-day Odisha, but after his death in 1839, the East India Company did not comply with the terms of his will.
His son, Duleep Singh lost the second Anglo-Sikh War leading to the annexation of the Punjab by the British. Under the aegis of Lord Dalhousie, the Last Treaty of Lahore was signed, officially ceding the Kohinoor to Queen Victoria along with the Maharaja’s other assets. The treaty specified,
“The gem called Kohinoor which was taken from Shah Shuja-ul-Malik by Maharaja Ranjit Singh shall be surrendered by the Maharajah of Lahore to the Queen of England.”
On 6 April 1850, the Kohinoor left the shores of India on board of the HMS Medea. So shrouded in mystery was its departure that even the Captain of the ship did not know the priceless cargo his ship carried.
In a grand event organized in Hyde Park in London, the Kohinoor was formally handed over to Queen Victoria by the officials of the East India Company.
Disappointed by its Mughal-style cut, the Queen, along with Prince Albert and others in the court, decided to refashion the diamond to enhance its brilliance. The re-cutting of the Kohinoor, that took a mere 38 days and costed £8000, resulted in an oval brilliant that weighed 108.93 carat. Despite the efforts of the Dutch jeweler, Mr Cantor, the results reduced the diamond drastically in weight. In 1853, it was mounted on a magnificent tiara for the queen that contained over two thousand diamonds.
Queen Victoria wore the diamond frequently afterwards and left it in her will that the Kohinoor should only be worn by a queen of the royal family. This was due to rumour of an ancient curse associated with the Kohinoor that said,
“He who owns this diamond will own the world, but will also know all its misfortunes. Only God, or a woman, can wear it with impunity.”
As a result, the diamond is worn only by the female members of the British Royal Family. Since getting into British hands, the Kohinoor has been worn by Queen Victoria, Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.
It is now displayed along with the other British crown jewels in the Tower of London. Crystal replicas of the diamond set in the oldest crowns as well as the original bracelet given to Queen Victoria can also be seen at the Tower’s Jewel House.
During the Second World War, the Crown Jewels were moved from their home at the Tower of London to a secret location. The biography of the French army general, Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, by his widow Simonne says that George VI hid the Kohinoor at the bottom of a lake near Windsor Castle where it remained until after the war. The only people who knew of the hiding place were the king and his librarian, who apparently revealed the secret to the general and his wife on their visit to England in 1949.
The subject of bitter battles and court intrigues, today Kohinoor casts its brilliance on the millions of tourists who, for the most part, are unaware of its long history in shaping the destinies of men.